Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

opting out, revisited

Regular readers, if I have any regular readers, will know that this is the kind of thing I strongly disagree with:

Overwhelmed by all the noise, some have simply chosen to block it out — to opt out, say, of social networks and microblog platforms like Twitter. Alternatively, others have hewn close to these social networks, counting on them to sort through all the information coming at us.

But to be informed in the distributed world we live in, opting out isn’t really an option. For better or worse, we are watching a C-Span version of our lives trying to fast-forward to the good parts.

I love this almost-always-on connected life, Lord knows I do, but of course opting out is an option even for those who want to be “informed,” at least for now. I could subscribe to and read only print magazines — even just monthly and quarterly magazines — and be fully informed about everything I need to be informed about.

We tell ourselves, by way of self-justification, that we need Twitter, need our RSS feeds, need Facebook. But no, we don't. We just like them very much. And as far as I’m concerned that’s good enough. It’s just necessary always to remember that we’re making choices and could, if we wished, make different ones about how we’re informed and what we’re informed about.

In this light it’s good to be reminded of a passage from John Ruskin’s Modern Painters that I recently quoted on my tumblelog:

To watch the corn grow, and the blossoms set; to draw hard breath over ploughshare or spade; to read, to think, to love, to hope, to pray — these are the things that make men happy; they have always had the power of doing these, they never will have the power to do more. The world’s prosperity or adversity depends upon our knowing and teaching these few things: but upon iron, or glass, or electricity, or steam, in no wise.

5 comments:

  • We tell ourselves we need a $5,000 Cape Horn windvane, and other things too. We find comfort in our assertions of powerlessness.

  • I'm not ashamed of "being connected," but I'm often struck by how repetitive it is. Most days, I'll have 10 or more RSS feeds all sharing the same links, discussing the same Apple rumors, etc. Back during the big news events of 2000 & 2001 (the presidential election and 9/11), I saw the same phenomenon on cable news. CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc. all ran the same stories every 15 minutes. Meanwhile, NPR covered those same stories PLUS several dozen more that the TV channels couldn't ever seem to get around to, despite having the same number of hours in the day.

    The key to being informed, then, isn't the quantity that you review but the quality. Interestingly enough, the "top twitterers" seem to know this. Check out the "Followers" vs. "Following" totals in the list of top Twitter users. Who knows how many of these people or companies really use Twitter to get information, but the pattern is overwhelmingly "speak to many, listen to few."

  • I've withdrawn from many information outlets and embraced others, essentially operating my own content filter (just as others have said that the next great information innovation will be a sorter to filter out the noise and ephemera). So I attend to what's important and entertaining to me, while what's important to everyone always makes its way to me. The rest I'm happy to stay in the dark about. My only fear is that my cherry picking is merely a form of confirmation bias, but how much worse is that really than having prefab opinions fed to you?

  • Not worse at all, brutus — and the prefab options can be overwhelming in their quantity, if not their quality. Plus, the idea that we can be informed about everything is a fantasy. Everyone filters to some degree; the question is whether we do so consciously and intelligently.

  • Mind you I do like the web. But I do not use Facebook very much, and Twitter not at all. I tried it and they do little or nothing to enhance my life.

    If you have some need to promote or market yourself, I can see it, but otherwise I find Facebook and Twitter to be really boring.

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